Land of Mine Roland Møller, Louis Hofmann, Joel Basman. Directed by Martin Zandvliet. Rated R. Opens Friday at Century Suncoast.
The Zookeeper’s Wife Jessica Chastain, Johan Heldenbergh, Daniel Brühl. Directed by Niki Caro. Rated PG-13. Opens Friday at Century Suncoast, Regal Downtown Summerlin and Green Valley Ranch.
More than 70 years after the end of World War II, filmmakers are still discovering new stories to tell from the time period, little-known true-life incidents that can make for dramatic and uplifting movies. Two movies opening in Las Vegas this week shed light on such incidents, and while they are crafted to be dramatic and uplifting, they follow the kind of safe, formulaic paths that have come to define the overstuffed WWII subgenre. It’s hard to criticize the intentions of Oscar-nominated Danish drama Land of Mine or English-language biopic The Zookeeper’s Wife, but it’s also hard to get swept up in their overly familiar narratives and tasteful, restrained storytelling.
Land of Mine takes place immediately after the war, inverting some of the typical sympathies of WWII stories by making young Germans into the protagonists, and former Allied soldiers into the bad guys. Following the German surrender, Denmark was left with tens of thousands of land mines along its coastline, and the Danish army used German prisoners of war to find and defuse the mines, casually sacrificing hundreds of lives in the process. The movie follows a group of teenage German soldiers, far from the stereotypical hardline Nazis, who were conscripted into fighting for their country and now have been conscripted into serving the Danish military. They’re shipped off to the coast, housed in a crumbling shack and barely fed, forced to spend their days poking around for mines while hoping not to get blown up.
The Danish sergeant overseeing the young men is at first callous but eventually warms up to his crew, regarding them as scared young men and not faceless enemies. The movie, however, has trouble making them distinctive, and the characters’ journey of reconciliation is predictable and heavy-handed, especially when facing obstacles from cruel, German-hating Danish superior officers. There’s also a certain morbid and manipulative streak to a movie that generates its main suspense over which innocent kid will get blown up next. In the end, the Germans and their Danish commander learn a bit about compassion and shared humanity, and the movie offers up sobering statistics about the casualties of German POWs during the land mine clean-up effort, in an appropriately respectful manner.
The story in The Zookeeper’s Wife is a bit more specific, based on real people and not just a real incident, but it also ends with title cards neatly wrapping things up, and it follows a familiar, predictable narrative with roots in the stories of Anne Frank and Oskar Schindler. Jessica Chastain plays Antonina Zabinski, a Christian woman in Warsaw, Poland, who runs the city’s zoo along with her husband Jan (Johan Heldenbergh). When the German army occupies Poland, the zoo’s animals are either killed or shipped off to Germany, but Antonina and her family remain, eventually using their house on the zoo grounds to hide and/or smuggle hundreds of Jews fleeing the Nazis.
There’s some mild suspense as a Nazi zoologist (Daniel Brühl) keeps poking around the zoo (and around Antonina), but the moments of danger generally pass quickly, and the occasional tension between Antonina and Jan makes even less of an impression. Chastain’s performance is hampered by her shaky Polish accent, and in general the authenticity is challenged by the standard mish-mash of an international cast all speaking English. The Zabinskis were officially recognized by Israel’s government in 1965 as heroes to the Jewish people, and they deserve every bit of that recognition. The movie about them, however, isn’t nearly as bold or risk-taking. Like Land of Mine, it tells a valuable story in a way that mostly recalls other, more vital versions of stories from the same endlessly dramatized historical period.